Season comes to an end

Two years ago, I was sitting down and looking at the makeup of future UND teams.

I looked at the 2012-13 squad and said, “That team is going to be really, really good.”

I figured it would win the MacNaughton Cup. Figured they would be poised for a run at the national championship. Figured they might be just as dominant as the 2010-11 squad, and as long as they didn’t run into Shawn Hunwick, this would be the team to beat.

Who was going to compete with their depth?

Top line: Brock Nelson, Corban Knight, Danny Kristo.

Second line: Stefan Matteau, J.T. Miller, Rocco Grimaldi.

Third line: Mark MacMillan, Carter Rowney, Michael Parks.

Best line in college hockey? Heck, that may have been the best two lines in college hockey.

But then, some dominoes fell the wrong way.

Miller got drafted by the wrong team — one that wanted to sign him immediately. He signed and played for the New York Rangers this year.

Matteau, after repeatedly telling the staff (and others around the country) that he’s coming to UND, changed his mind to go play major juniors. He also signed out of high school and played for the New Jersey Devils this year.

Nelson, who most (myself included) thought would stay for his junior year, signed with the New York Islanders and played this season for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the AHL.

And with that, UND lost three first-round picks that were scheduled to be on this year’s team. That changes things.

They recruited Connor Gaarder and Bryn Chyzyk to fill Miller and Matteau’s spots late in the game. They are solid contributors, but they are not 6-foot-2, NHL-ready power forwards with soft hands.

Yes, losing players unexpectedly is the name of the game in this age of college hockey. That’s why everyone outside of UND has missed the NCAA tournament at least once in the last 10 years — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Boston College, Michigan… everyone. That’s why none of the above-mentioned teams have a shot at winning the title this year.

You have to adjust to it and move on without them. And UND did its best.

They were still a pretty good team this season. They were a post away from winning the MacNaughton Cup (remember the OT in Mankato?). Another post away from going to the Frozen Four (one of three posts, actually). Average teams don’t get that close to those achievements.

They still won 20 games, got home ice, got to the Final Five for the 11th straight year (when nobody else has been there more than two years in a row) and reached the NCAA tournament once again (winning a game there).

Considering all of that, you have to classify this team as a good team.

But they weren’t a great team.

What kept them from being great? It’s hard not to go back and look what was penciled in for this season.

After Nelson signed, UND never found a left winger for Knight and Kristo. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Just about everyone got a chance up there — Grimaldi, Rowney, Parks, Mark MacMillan, Mitch MacMillan, Brendan O’Donnell and Drake Caggiula. They even tried moving Kristo to his off wing and Player X to right wing. Nothing ever clicked the way Nelson did on that unit. Simply, UND was never able to replace him.

Interestingly, it didn’t really affect the production of Knight and Kristo; they were still two of the top scorers in the nation. But it’s scary to think that they might have been able to do even more with Nelson (or if someone else clicked).

They also seemed to have trouble finding the right mix for Grimaldi. He played left wing, right wing and center with a bunch of different players. Again, it’s hard not to look at the above-listed potential line combination with Grimaldi and Miller, who clicked on the same line for two years at the NTDP and dominated the World Under-18 tournament together in 2011.

I’m certain that the coaches and players don’t want to hear about Miller and Matteau. They moved on long ago without them, and they aren’t in the business of “what ifs.” They were happy with the team they had.

But there’s no denying that their de-commitments — and the loss of Nelson — had a big impact on this season. You can try to plan for guys to leave after three years in college (they were prepared for Aaron Dell’s early signing after last season), but there’s no way to plan for guys not showing up at the last minute, especially in this day and age when all the top players are committed years in advance. It can catch up to you.

As for the loss to Yale, it wasn’t for a “lack of heart” or a “lack of effort” or that they “didn’t want it.” Trust me, they wanted it bad. The team just didn’t play well enough to win. They certainly didn’t catch any breaks along the way (all three of UND’s posts went out, Yale’s one post went in, disallowed goal, etc.), but that’s beside the point, because UND didn’t play well enough against a Yale team that has NHL-bound players.

In the end, we saw a pretty good team this season with a very good senior class. But we were never able to see the exceptional team that the coaches had lined up for this year.

Gameday final: Yale 4, UND 1

TODAY’S VIEWING: ESPNU. Some people are saying ESPN3.com is being blacked out. I don’t know what’s up with that. Lineup notes: Big surprise is that Zane Gothberg is out with an “undisclosed ailment” and Clarke Saunders is starting. Grimaldi starts up on the top line. Full lines and live chat are below.

First period

UND 1, Yale 0 — Corban Knight (Andrew MacWilliam, Derek Forbort) 7:22. Knight enters the zone, turns a Yale defenseman inside out and skates by him wide, then snaps a shot past Malcolm on the glove side.

Second period

No scoring.

Third period

UND 1, Yale 1 — Josh Balch (Anthony Day, Stu Wilson) 12:25. Day has the puck in the corner and throws one to the front of the net. Saunders makes the initial stop, but Balch is there to put away the rebound.

Yale 2, UND 1 — Jesse Root (Andrew Miller, Tommy Fallen) 15:04 (pp). Yale capitalizes on a final rush on the power play. Root skates across the zone and gains the puck on the top of the left circle and snaps a shot off the post and in.

Yale 3, UND 1 — Stu Wilson (Anthony Day) 17:39. Yale enters the zone on a 3-on-1 rush. Day takes the shot from the left side. Saunders makes the initial save, but Wilson bats the rebound out of the air.

Yale 4, UND 1 — Kenny Agostino 19:00. Yale finishes it off with an empty-netter.

UND’s lines

19 Rocco Grimaldi–10 Corban Knight–7 Danny Kristo
16 Mark MacMillan–27 Carter Rowney–15 Michael Parks
9 Drake Caggiula–28 Stephane Pattyn–17 Colten St. Clair
21 Brendan O’Donnell–13 Connor Gaarder–11 Derek Rodwell

2 Andrew MacWilliam–18 Dillon Simpson
4 Derek Forbort–24 Jordan Schmaltz
5 Nick Mattson–20 Joe Gleason

33 Clarke Saunders
31 Zane Gothberg
35 Tate Maris

Yale’s lines

27 Charles Orzetti–15 Clinton Bourbonais–28 Antoine Laganiere
18 Kenny Agostino–20 Jesse Root–17 Andrew Miller
8 Josh Balch–6 Stu Wilson–19 Anthony Day
11 Trent Ruffolo–9 Carson Cooper–7 Matt Killian

2 Gus Young–4 Rob O’Gara
22 Tommy Fallen–14 Ryan Obuchowski
21 Colin Dueck–10 Mitch Witek

33 Jeff Malcolm
31 Nick Maricic
29 Connor Wilson

Friday night rewind

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Niagara gave UND everything it could handle Friday night in Van Andel Arena, but thanks to a key save by Zane Gothberg, two big plays by seniors and a shut down defensive corps, UND was able to sneak one out against the Purple Eagles in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Game stories:

Grand Forks Herald gamer

Grand Forks Herald notebook (random items)

Grand Forks Herald column on Hakstol’s line changes

Buffalo News

USCHO gamer

USCHO sidebar on Carsen Chubak

College Hockey News

Other notes:

  • UND is advancing to the regional final for the eighth time in the last 10 years and for the seventh time in nine years under coach Dave Hakstol. UND’s seniors will play in their third regional championship game.
  • Yale also is accustomed to being in this game. This is the Bulldogs’ third trip in the last four years to the regional final. In 2011, they lost to eventual national champion Minnesota-Duluth. In 2010, they lost to eventual national champion Boston College.
  • The big question will be about who you put with Corban Knight and Danny Kristo on the top line. A remarkable seven guys have had chances to play on their line, including Brendan O’Donnell, Rocco Grimaldi, Carter Rowney, Michael Parks, Mark MacMillan, Mitch MacMillan and Drake Caggiula. O’Donnell started up there, but was moved off of the line in the third. Grimaldi finished up there. Read Miller’s column to hear comments on that.
  • Kristo continues to come up huge for UND. He now has five goals in five playoff games. Four in the third period. He’s second nationally with 26 goals — 18 of them have come with UND trailing or the game tied. He’s definitely making a case for Hobey.
  • Prior to tonight, Niagara had just one loss in 17 games when leading after two periods.
  • I originally thought Andrew MacWilliam’s point shot hit a Niagara player in front of the net and went in, but Chubak said it went in clean. He blamed himself for not stopping it and said he should have had it. Niagara coach Dave Burkholder interrupted and mentioned how many bodies were in front
  • UND’s power play is 0-for-its-last-18, but threw 13 shots on goal during its six power-play chances against Niagara. The power plays didn’t struggle as much as they did in the Final Five. Maybe they are about to break through there?
  • On the other side, UND has only allowed three power-play goals in the last nine games (27 for 30).
  • The underrated play of the game is Zane Gothberg’s save on Ryan Murphy’s breakaway late in the second period. If that goes in, that might be it for UND. Gothberg got a piece of it and sent it wide of the net. Burkholder said Murphy has scored five goals on that move this year.
  • There’s little to no atmosphere in the building, which is strange. The press box is way up by the roof, yet we can hear the players and coaches yelling clearly. There were only 2,289 in attendance for the day (while we had 3,811 on our live chat). With Minnesota losing, there might be fewer fans for the regional championship.
  • With that in mind, I thought Niagara played the game it needed to a T. They kept the scoring to a minimum, made life difficult offensively for UND, got a great performance out of the goalie and scored the first goal of the game.
  • Yale’s players weren’t all that giddy about the win over Minnesota. As Yale coach Keith Allain said, they came here to win the regional, not just beat Minnesota.
  • Yale’s top forwards are very good and will get scoring chances. Kenny Agostino was involved in the Jarome Iginla trade this week. He was the best player on the ice in the Gophers-Bulldogs game. Andrew Miller is exceptional and Antoine Laganiere is believed to be one of the most coveted college free agents.

Gameday final: UND 2, Niagara 1

TONIGHT’S VIEWING: Game is on ESPNU and WatchESPN. Lineup notes: Zane Gothberg starts. Caggiula up to LW on the second line, Parks down to third line winger. Bryn Chyzyk in for Mitch MacMillan, who was scheduled to be in the lineup yesterday (not sure what happened with him). Full lines and live chat below.

First period

Scoreless.

Second period

Niagara 1, UND 0 — Jason Beattie (Matt Williams) 6:26. Just as a power play expires, Beattie speeds up the right wing and snaps a shot five-hole on Gothberg from the right circle.

Third period

Niagara 1, UND 1 — Andrew MacWilliam 1:56. MacWilliam tees one up from the point and launches a slap shot through a ton of traffic. It hits a Niagara player and goes in.

UND 2, Niagara 1 — Danny Kristo (Derek Forbort, Rocco Grimaldi) 2:53. Kristo picks up a loose puck in the slot area, snaps a shot from down low on Chubak, who makes the save. Kristo picks it up and wraps it for the go-ahead goal.

UND’s lines

21 Brendan O’Donnell–10 Corban Knight–7 Danny Kristo
9 Drake Caggiula–27 Carter Rowney–19 Rocco Grimaldi
29 Bryn Chyzyk–16 Mark MacMillan–15 Michael Parks
13 Connor Gaarder–28 Stephane Pattyn–17 Colten St. Clair

2 Andrew MacWilliam–18 Dillon Simpson
4 Derek Forbort–24 Jordan Schmaltz
5 Nick Mattson–20 Joe Gleason

31 Zane Gothberg
33 Clarke Saunders
35 Tate Maris

Niagara’s lines

11 Ryan Murphy–21 Giancarlo Iuorio–8 Marc Zanette
19 Hugo Turcotte–15 Patrick Divjak–29 Ryan Rashid
14 Jeff Hannan–16 Chris Lochner–27 Isaac Kohls
23 Matt Chartrain–26 Rocky Gruttadauria–10 Dan Kolenda

25 Matt Dineen–17 Kevin Albers
12 C.J. Chartrain–2 Kevin Ryan
5 Matt Williams–3 Jason Beattie

1 Carsen Chubak
31 Chris Paulin
30 Cody Campbell

Friday morning reading

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — It was strange wandering around downtown Grand Rapids tonight.

I hardly saw any UND fans.

Every other road trip this year, you could go anywhere in a downtown area, to just about any restaurant or pub, and find the place crawling with UND fans.

All day today, I saw a total of four UND fans, no Minnesota fans, no Niagara fans and no Yale fans. And one of the UND fans was leaving Grand Rapids at the airport.

We will find out tomorrow for sure, but the NCAA has to be worried about this regional being a disaster attendance-wise. Surely, they thought Michigan or Western Michigan — two teams ranked in the top 10 nationally at the start of the season — to be in the tournament and placed in the West Regional.

Alas, there are no Michigan teams in the NCAAs and attendance has to be a major concern for this one. Tom Miller wrote asking questions about the issue. Read that here.

As for the game itself, I’m thinking it will be a close one. I’m going with 3-2 UND. Why will it be close? History tells us so. Read about that, and what Niagara plans to do to keep Danny Kristo and Corban Knight at bay, in this story.

This is my eighth year covering college hockey and probably the first year where I’ve looked at the NCAA bracket with no expectations for anyone. I would be a little surprised if Canisius beat Quinnipiac. Other than that, it’s really up for grabs. This story details the wild world of college hockey in 2012-13.

UND and Boston College have traditionally been the best second-half teams in the nation. UND enters the national tournament with a 9-7-4 mark in the last 20 games. Boston College is 10-9-3 in the last 22 games.

But for UND, alarm bells are not going off. The team went back to work after the Final Five loss to Colorado College and its leaders say that they’ve refocused and they are eager to get back to work against Niagara.

Perhaps that’s this season feels so weird.

Every other year under ninth-year coach Dave Hakstol, UND entered the NCAA tournament on some sort of a ridiculous run. We all knew what the line combinations would be. We all knew who the goaltender would be.

Heading into today? Not so much.

It’s not like UND has had a bad year. The team was a post away from winning the MacNaughton Cup. It was just done in unfamiliar fashion. How will that translate to the NCAAs? It’s anybody’s guess.

In Friday’s Herald, there’s a full page of capsules, featuring all four teams in the West Regional and a key player for each team. I don’t see it online right now, but you can see it in the paper.

USCHO did put some capsules online. You can check theirs out here. College Hockey News also has a preview here.

Jayson Hajdu and Matt Schill have been doing a travel blog here.

We will have a video blog coming this morning and more coverage of the West Regional as it unfolds in the afternoon.

Minnesota vs. Yale at 1 p.m. Central. UND vs. Niagara at 4:30 p.m. Central. Both games are on ESPNU. We’ll have a live chat going on the blog.

Josh Duhamel pushes Knight for Hobey

Hollywood actor Josh Duhamel, who grew up in Minot and is a UND fan, is pushing Corban Knight for Hobey.

Duhamel tweeted Wednesday afternoon for fans to go vote for Knight on the Vote for Hobey page.

Duhamel sometimes appears with Sioux gear in his movies.

Knight is one of 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, which goes to the top player in college hockey. UND senior Danny Kristo also is one of the finalists.